Election 2016: First-time candidates step out on canvass

Gender quotas mean more inexperienced candidates, but most are happy with support

Fine Gael candidate Stephanie Regan canvassing in Raheny, Dublin. Topics included  sugar content in children’s food and the Eighth Amendment. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Fine Gael candidate Stephanie Regan canvassing in Raheny, Dublin. Topics included sugar content in children’s food and the Eighth Amendment. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Posters, flags and badges are strewn across a messy living room-cum-campaign headquarters as first-time general election candidate Stephanie Regan prepares to canvass in the Dublin Bay North constituency. “We haven’t even had time to put the Christmas decorations away,” she says as she leaves with an armful of Fine Gael leaflets.

On a typical Wednesday she does two rounds of the constituency – one at 2.30pm, another at 6pm – and this evening she also has to chair an hour-long community meeting on employment, the latest in a series of gatherings the self-employed psychotherapist has hosted on topics including mental health and childcare over the past eight months.

Regan is open about the necessity of doing more and trying unconventional tactics to raise her profile in an area where she faces competition from more established, and predominantly male, electoral rivals.

Many first heard of her last May when Fine Gael selected its candidates for the constituency. Regan and Dublin City Council member Naoise Ó Muirí were chosen to run in the five-seater, creating an embarrassing scenario for party chiefs. Long-serving TD and Minister for Jobs Richard Bruton had to be added to the ticket subsequently by party HQ as a third candidate.

Controversy

“I’m happy to be associated with gender quotas. Okay, I didn’t happen to need it but, if I needed it fully, was I happy to take it? Absolutely,” she says, pointing out that her selection was primarily due to the party needing a candidate in the north of the constituency.

Could the three-candidate strategy hamper Fine Gael’s chances of maximising seats in the area? “I really hope it doesn’t, but it won’t be on my head if it does . . . there are two seats there for the taking for Fine Gael in my view.”

Regan ran unsuccessfully in the 2014 local elections, as did Sinn Féin’s Noeleen Moran, another candidate who is new to the process.

Whereas some parties have struggled to meet the quota numbers, Sinn Féin will comfortably meet it. Moran, who is running in Clare, says the positive reception she has received has undoubtedly been helped by her being a young woman.

“We have specific interests just as men do, and in order for those interests to be protected you have to have equal representation,” she says.

Back in Dublin 5, Regan’s canvass passes cordially until one particular issue rears its head. Clutching a toddler to her chest, one woman ruminates on sugar content in children’s food and taxes on sanitary products before asking Regan for her position on the Eighth Amendment and abortion. “I trust women to make good choices,” she replies, in a composed but not overly specific response. “That’s what I want to hear,” the local woman replies.

Apart from the odd grumbling about “trying to take Richard Bruton’s seat”, and occasional attacks from activists of other political persuasions, Regan says she has received every possible encouragement from her supporters and party.

Male rivals

WexfordAoife Byrne

“I don’t think it’s a prerequisite that you must be a county councillor to stand for Dáil Éireann at all,” she says.

Byrne is upbeat about her chances. “I think I’ll probably be the last candidate elected, but yes, I firmly believe I can be elected.”

Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin are each putting forward four female candidates who have never contested elections before, according to NUI Maynooth’s Dr Adrian Kavanagh.

The gender quotas have resulted in an increase in the number of candidates from a relatively inexperienced background, but Kavanagh says it is nothing extraordinary in the context of modern politics.

“There’s a danger of just dismissing these new candidates and a lot of them have been hitting the ground running. They’re not there just to make up the numbers,” he says.